Incense & Peppermints
When jazz critics calibrated their cross hairs on the covey of bands arising out of the Hammond B-3 organ explosion of the Sixties, chances are Trudy Pitts caught her share of shots. Pitts’ brand of music embraced many of the qualities that made purists cringe and carp in protest. A light, almost gossamer attack on her keys, a love for the popular tunes of day, and a propensity for arrangements that emphasized a relaxed loungey flair were all traits that situated her near the top of the hit list. Add to this her tendency to include theatrical vocals on certain numbers and the nails in her critical casket seemed all but pounded. But Pitts’ popularity tells a different story, and coupled with close listening to her albums another, less caustic perspective emerges.
Pitts certainly had the musical pedigree to trump her critics’ dispersions. A student of Julliard and a graduate from the Connecticut College for Women in classical music, she was also an initial pick as Shirley Scott’s replacement in percussionist Bill Carney’s band. Also in the band at that time: a certain saxophonist named John Coltrane and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath (where are the tapes!). The initial audition, while promising didn’t result in a hire and Pitts spent the next three years gigging around Philadelphia, polishing her improvising chops under Carney’s mentorship. The pair soon married and Pitts joined the band, taking over the marquee mantle and inking a recording contract with Prestige. Cherub-cheeked Pat Martino, recommended by Philly music doyen Dennis Sandole, provided the final point the triangle and the trio was primed to record.
Pitts’ entry in the Prestige Legends of Acid Jazz series compiles her first to albums for the label. The original vinyl covers included in the liners are classically indicative of their era, picturing Pitts in cocktail attire; cigarette holder perched daintily between slender fingers. The programs have a similar retro feel, but the band turns in top-flight performances even on the tunes that seem trite or treacly. Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts deposits false modesty at the door and kicks off a nine-track set on the roller rink groove of “Steppin’ In Minor.” Carney’s steady brushes establish a loping rhythm and Pitts turns on like Sun Ra on Valium, spreading a soothing syrupy haze around Martino’s subtle strums. Herb Albert’s “The Spanish Flea,” on loan from The Dating Game soundtrack, registers as the first of several schmaltzy pop picks, but Pitts’ greasy runs effectively slice through the veneer of Velveeta and expose fertile funk beneath. Her robust fills take on near-orchestral dimensions near the track’s end and it’s easy to imagine a flurry of flipping effects switches. Abdu Johnson’s agile, though hardly Latin, conga patterns flesh out the rhythmic end alongside Carney’s sparkling cymbals. Unveiling a set of husky pipes akin to those of Nina Simone on “Something Wonderful” Pitts’ turns the standard into what could pass for a fugitive tune from a James Bond film. Martino unplugs and glides plectrum across acoustic strings in close approximation of Bossa Nova chording while Johnson and Carney handle the sculpting of a light airy beat to match.
Swerving the band back behing jazz borders Pitts’ tries her hand at the Desmond/Brubeck vehicle “Take Five.” Johnson’s percolating conga laces with Martino’s rhythmic riffing leaving the leader to expound at length on possibilities afforded by the tricky time signature and finish off with a wash of dramatic pedal swells. “It Was a Very Good Year” takes flight on a surprisingly brisk tempo, and once again Pitts’ shows a talent for finding improvisatory merit in material that otherwise wouldn’t seem viable. The downside is that Martino’s adroit fingers are largely left to simple comping for the duration. Carney’s intriguing “Siete,” originally written as a feature for Trane’s soprano, starts with spooky organ progression and settles into a somber groove. Martino finally breaks out of his accompanist role for a brief chorus before the tune’s spiraling close. But “Night Song” presents a mostly throw away mix of saccharine riffing between organ and acoustic guitar and even Carney seems a bit bored by the flaccid lock-step beat. Winding down with a vocal take on “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” after the spirited bop fireworks of “Fiddlin’” Pitts’ pilots the crew back to port on the steam of one final laidback exposition on the keys.
Seven months later the same band sans Johnson returned to Englewood Cliffs for a sophomore session As These Blues of Mine. Blueprints stayed basically the same with Carney’s bop-influenced originals interspersing pop fare. The album peaks early with the black strap molasses groove of the drummer’s own “Organology.” Building from the frenetic pace of a layered 9/12 rhythm the band revels in one of the most contagious grooves of the entire disc. Pitts and Martino engage in a sparring scalar duel as the latter’s feet stomp out a rolling, finger-popping bass line on organ pedals. “House of the Rising Sun,” a venerable slice of Americana covered by everyone from Leadbelly to the Ventures, receives the royal treatment. Martino’s spartan acoustic strums frame Pitts’ soulful recitation of the lyrics foretelling of innocence lost and another spate of precisely placed organ-born bass notes anchors the action harmonically. Infusing more grooves than Lennon and McCartney ever could, the band tackles “Eleanor Rigby” in grand style. Pitts’ perfectly captures the song’s moody current of urban anomie, but leavens it with a prominent streak of playful mischievousness through a boogaloo beat. “Count Nine” sustains the winning streak as Pitts’ pulls out the stops in a solo that spreads like wildfire across the bustling backdrop up of Martino’s chugging strings and Carney’s cunning sticks. Far less successful, Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” blanches under the withering light of Pitts’ overexposed harpsichord-like trills and melodramatic singing. Even the Martino and Carney can’t rescue the ill-advised pop cover and both fall back on featherweight riffing as a result.
Two Carney originals and a Bacharach crowd-pleaser close the set out. “Teddy Makes Three” ambles along a easy going blues chassis livened by Martino’s robust chording and Pitts’ full bore shimmering phrases. “These Blues of Mine,” the longest cut on the disc, offers a final feature for Pitts’ velvety pipes. Voicing the lyrics with wide vibrato, she lays the emotion on thick. Cloaked by the in the comforting blanket of atmosphere organ runs, swishing brushes and spidery guitar chords it’s a performance that skirts the edges of camp, but retains an underlying edge of sincerity. The hope-suffused “What the World Needs Now” suggests a fitting finale and the trio takes a brisk jog through the bouncing changes, once again grafting on a boogaloo feeling with greasy syncopations.
Pitts followed her first pair of Prestige outings with two more: A Bucketful of Soul (1967) and Excitement of Trudy Pitts (1968); neither of which have as yet been reissued to compact disc. Both albums capitalized on the same prosperous formula of hard grooving originals interspersed with pop covers. But each suffered from the absence of Pat Martino, who left the fold to lead his own sessions and was replaced by guitarist Wilbert Longmire. Side gigs with Willis Jackson, Rashaan Roland Kirk and Martino further bolstered Pitts’ discography, and she continued to tour through the remainder of the Sixties, before family responsibilities largely curtailed her musical excursions outside Philadelphia. Returning to the piano, she started up a regular residence in her home city that by accounts continues to this day. Pitts’ Prestige work stands as the purest distillation of her contributions to the soul jazz idiom. She regularly subverted the so-called “feel good” trappings of the style with clever musicianship, creative arranging and above all that indefinable virtue- soul. It’s these attributes that so deftly refute sophisticated critics claims to the contrary and make her music such an absorbing listen.
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Tracks: Steppin’ in Minor* (4:30)/ The Spanish Flea* (4:20)/ Something Wonderful* (3:25)/ Take Five* (4:28)/ It Was a Very Good Year* (3:25)/ Siete* (4:00)/ Night Song* (3:56)/ Fiddlin’* (3:55)/ Matchmaker, Matchmaker* (4:13)/ Organology (4:00)/ The House of the Rising Sun (3:39)/ Just ‘Js Two (5:05)/ Eleanor Rigby (2:51)/ Count Nine (4:15)/ Man and a Woman (4:20)/ A Whiter Shade of Pale (3:10)/ Teddy Makes Three (3:03)/ These Blues of Mine (5:25)/ What the World Needs Now (3:23).
Players: Trudy Pitts- organ, vocals; Pat Martino- guitar; Bill Carney- drums; Abdu Johnson- conga*. Recorded: February* & September 1967, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.